Identity, Material, and Culture: In Conversation with Olayami Dabls

Olayami Dabls founded the MBAD African Bead Museum in Detroit, MI in 2002. The museum’s campus spans an entire neighborhood block and is home to a sculpture garden featuring Dabls’ own installations, as well as the N’kisi House and African Language Wall.  

I read that you originally started the MBAD Bead Museum after working as a curator and artist-in-residence at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. What is it that you wanted to do differently with the MBAD Bead Museum?

The whole approach is different. We are more interested in what happened prior to our colonization and enslavement as opposed to what happened after colonization and enslavement when we began to assimilate European culture. That whole period only takes up eight or nine generations, that’s really not a long period of time. It takes much longer for a complete cleansing if you will of one’s culture. So our emphasis is on connecting back with that culture with symbolism, artifacts, textiles, beads, etc., and information. That’s what we are.

The Europeaen is the dominant culture and we are mimicking it. I’m speaking a European language. I’m also abiding by the rules and regulations that governs how people conduct themselves. Even the marriage and funeral rituals are all based on our encounter with the Europeans. It’s a complete assimilation and mimicking of European culture.

It’s probably less now because unless your culture is visible and used on a day to day basis, you can’t help but go back to the way things were. There was a greater emphasis on our cultural awareness throughout the 80s than there are now.

You don’t have institutions that supports your culture in terms of having things on display and emphasising them and bringing them to the forefront of the education process. The whole education system we are involved in is a Western system. At the time there were so called African-centered schools, they are no longer in existence. In fact the last one changed its name to something else. It’s so overwhelming trying to emphasize things about your own culture, and yet the requirement is to learn the European culture. We are forced to continue the indoctrination and mimicking of former oppressors, but now it’s met with no resistance because we think we’ve found a way in Western culture. But that’s not the way that works. If you are not actively involved in your culture, you are sure to assimilating or mimicking the culture that is available. We have an installation here on our site to place emphasis on that point that if you’re not doing your own culture you’re doing someone else’s culture. It can be done in such a way that no one is even aware of what is going on. It’s only natural for people to mimic the culture around them if they don’t have their own culture. And since colonization was a deliberate attempt to weed out one’s culture and replace it with another culture, and the greatest way to do that is to force any culture to give up it’s language and speak the language of the oppressor. Language is very important to cultural identity- in fact the technical definition of culture is language and creation myth on how you got here. So you can be assured if you’re not speaking your language, you are deep in the process of moving farther and farther away from your culture.  The only problem with that is that within us there is a system that yearns to fulfill its own needs and desires, that if it’s placed there over two hundred thousand years, so the person will not feel comfortable learning all they need to know with the culture they are forced to learn. You can’t find fulfillment in another person’s cultural identity.

There are more black people who are suffering from all kinds of depression and anxiety because they can’t find fulfillment in someone else’s cultural identity, it just doesn’t work that way. And a lot of issues in the black community are not the result of someone not being able to learn who can learn, it has more to do with how the inside is not lined up with the outside, and therefore there will always be issues that we have to confront.

Do you see the work you’re doing at the museum as political, is it possible to remove the work from politics?

Well politics, religion, all those words are terms that can easily be identified to any behavior we find ourselves involved in, so I choose not to identify myself as being political, I consider myself as being social, dealing with human needs and desires, which is to be comfortable in whatever culture they grew up in. What they tried to do is take the aboriginal people and try to convert them into a European culture, it didn’t work. And the only reason why its not as obvious as it is here in Detroit and in other places, is because we make the assumption that there is very little difference between Africans and Europeans other than education, and all we have to do is educate ourselves more and we will become a part of the pie, and we will benefit from what America has to offer, well it’s not that simple. People have not always wanted to be rich. The reason poor people in this country want to be rich is because the European paradigm says that you should acquire wealth. There were people on this planet who were quite comfortable with living and providing a livelihood for themselves and didn’t have these ideals that depressed them about not having access to wealth. There are a lot of things going on here with African people that needs to be resolved with the culture identity. People who speak their own language are much happier than those who mimic another people’s language. There are things going on inside of us that goes back two, three-thousand years that cannot be fulfilled by learning a lot about some other culture. Science has proven that we operate off of triggers, and the greatest trigger of all is one’s language, meaning that in your language you can access information that is in you, and that is something we cannot even reach because we’re not speaking our mother tongue. Mother teaches us the language that we learn, and if that language is not fulfilling anything in us, the triggers, we cannot be fulfilled. There are things going on within me that I can never access because I’m not speaking my mother tongue.

There is something in us that yearns to be free, there is information in us that came at the moment of conception, and we can only access that information through language that was given to us thousands of years ago. So what we’re doing here is focusing on the symbolism, they access and release triggers. So we use a lot of symbols here without saying anything about them knowing that the subconscious works different from the conscious mind, the subconscious uses is learning and using information without your knowledge. What we have discovered here is that the information that we provide is universal, all people can communicate with it. That was a big mistake that I made with the assumption that I would only be communicating directly with African people, and in fact these symbols are universal, all people of this planet have communicated with these symbols at one point in time. We all came from the same start, we’re communicating with each other with the symbolism, we just happen to be manipulated by them. Now with the advertising, they use symbols to tell all kinds of stories to the person who receives it: status, who does and doesn’t have wealth, who is supposed to be aware of what’s going on and who’s not. That information is being manipulated but that information has been there all along to communicate with. We have an African Bead Museum, beads were never worn for adornment, but in the West that’s all they were worn for, for someone to look good or feel good. But traditionally the beads communicated information about the wearer, his status, rite of passage, and no words were ever exchanged. We use a lot of beads, and we use a lot of symbols in our exhibits here, and it’s working. People from all over the world are aware of this place here in the center of Detroit, and it doesn’t require a PhD to write a dissertation and set forth plans for people to follow. People are much smarter than the so-called educated community have given us credit for. We have within each and everyone of us the ability to communicate in such a way that we do not even have to express words. And I remember the academia went on the attack when they said, “you just can’t reach conclusions about people without having information” and where it was general knowledge that a person can reach conclusions about a person by the energy that is exchanged between them, and be extremely accurate with it. Any kind of change we want to make is attainable.

When you isolate people, you isolate the communication that happens outside of our senses. It was recently discovered that our stomach is a brain. All the things that our ancestors were doing in the past, science is beginning to prove them to be true by trying to prove that they have no validity. It’s not going to take forever for us to get connected back to our culture identity. Any African child born in America can go back to Africa and spend some time with his people and in a matter of months that child will have assimilated the people of the culture group he’s in. It doesn’t take forever for people to resort back, all it takes is a conscious effort and to have those things readily available and that’s what we offer here, a way to go back to the past and learn some things. The information is in us. Each and every one of us have over 200,000 years of information and if we figure out ways to release those triggers it won’t take a lifetime to reconnect.”

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